Land Acknowledgements: Honoring Indigenous Peoples Past, Present, and Emerging

By Keith BraveHeart © U.S. Department of Arts and Culture

Land acknowledgements have become common in the world of academia in the U.S. and Canada, and especially in the Humanities. But, outside of that reduced sphere, many are still unaware of the meaning, role, and importance of land acknowledgements. This might be a place where to start.

Following the installation of a commemorative plaque with a land acknowledgement on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art mid-May, we asked our followers on Instagram if they were familiar with the practice of land acknowledgement. 60% were unsure or complete strangers to the topic.

What is a land acknowledgement?

“Today, land acknowledgments are used by Native Peoples and non-Natives to recognize Indigenous Peoples who are the original stewards of the lands on which we now live.”

Honoring Original Indigenous Inhabitants: Land Acknowledgement,” National Museum of the American Indian
Bronze plaque bearing a land acknowledgment on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s facade
© Bruce Schwarz, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A land acknowledgement is the practice, written or oral, of honoring the Indigenous caretakers of the land one occupies. Most are unceded territories, and all were, in one way or another, stolen by colonizers. Hence, land acknowledgments are a direct consequence of settler colonialism, a type of colonization in which the invader permanently occupies and takes over Indigenous territories, rather than exploiting its people and resources for the benefit of the mainland. Examples of settler colonialism include Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Land—and sometimes water—acknowledgements are common in the United States in scientific talks, email signatures, and museums and university websites. In Canada and Australia, land acknowledgements (called “country acknowledgements” in Australia) are more widespread and are performed at schools or sports games.

While they can be general, land acknowledgements tend to refer to the specific Indigenous groups which were, and in many cases still are, on the territory where one is located. As we will come to see, this attribution can sometimes prove difficult or reductive. Nevertheless, land acknowledgements are often developed in collaboration with members and tribal knowledge bearers from those local Indigenous communities, as in the case of the ones of the Fowler Museum and Northwestern University.

What are the benefits of land acknowledgements?

© U.S. Department of Arts and Culture

Land acknowledgements allow us to express gratitude for the space we are in, to increase visibility for Indigenous communities past, present, and future, and to recognize the brutal conditions in which settler states came to be and the ongoing impact of colonialism. Honoring the land also echoes Indigenous protocols, although they only scratch the surface of such ancestral practices.

One of the main perks of land acknowledgements is that they invite people to do background research and to interact with the Indigenous groups on the land that they reside on. This collaborative map, while non-exhaustive and approximate in certain ways, can be of great help in that endeavor.

“If we think of territorial acknowledgments as sites of potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure.”

Chelsea Vowel, “Beyond territorial acknowledgments

Individuals willing to create a land acknowledgement have the opportunity to reach out to the tribal nations presently or previously located on a specific territory. While this should not be a one-way request, it is an opportunity to create long-term and mutual relationships with Indigenous communities.

What are the drawbacks of land acknowledgements?

Brown Sandy Field Under Blue and White Cloudy Sky with on it written 'Beyond Land Acknowledgement'
© Objective Convergence

One of the main issues with land acknowledgements is that they reinforce the view that Indigenous peoples were and are static entities, stuck in time and space—a narrative at play for example in the recent exhibition titled “The Olmecs” at the Musée du quai Branly. When, in reality, many Indigenous groups were nomadic, often relocated, and ultimately forcibly removed from their territory by invaders and colonizers. Hence, associating specific communities with modern geographic boundaries can sometimes prove challenging.

Land acknowledgements are also often criticized for being superficial and repetitive practices aimed at making non-Indigenous people feel good about themselves without having to commit much time, effort, or money to Indigenous communities. Many of us, myself included, reuse official land acknowledgements which have been elaborated by the institutions of which we are members without personally reaching out to any tribal nation. This action can thus remain shallow, if not accompanied by further efforts. Over time, land acknowledgements can also feel more like a formality in the academic and museum world, akin to thanking the organizers of a conference one is presenting at, rather than a deeply meaningful action.

“[…] such acknowledgments are meant to look like activism, but in America, they have no consequences”

Alex Small, “Land Acknowledgments Accomplish Little

Meanwhile, the general public still feels very much detached from those practices, which gather little interest in non-specialized fields. For example, the announcement of the installation of the bronze plaque with a land acknowledgement on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art only received 38 Likes on Twitter, while no post was even published on the topic on their Instagram account to date. The plaque itself looks intentionally aged, and no doubt many will pass it without noticing it on their way to the museum.

Why should non-settler colonial states care?

© U.S. Department of Arts and Culture

As previously mentioned, land acknowledgements are deeply embedded within the enterprise of settler colonial states. Then, why should individuals residing in non-settler colonial states care?

Growing up in France, a nation with a track record replete with atrocious colonial practices, I have been taught that colonization was a remote action in both time and space. Blameworthy, sure, but not something that we should deal with in France today. Being confronted with the situation of Indigenous groups in the Americas has changed that perspective. While a land acknowledgement would make little sense in Europe, I wonder if there are ways to shed light on the colonial past and present in the sphere of the everyday on that continent through a similar practice. Not out of mere guilt, but rather as a way to recognize our history, bringing to the fore those who have been invisibilized, to move forward together.

In short

The practice of land acknowledgement is a place to start, not a demonstration of activism in itself. Opinions diverge on whether or not it contributes to meaningful change. Beyond the need for self-righteousness, land acknowledgements can foster dialogue, incentivize research, and shed light on the deep roots of settler colonial states which are still very much alive today.

More tangible ways to take action include volunteering and donating to Indigenous organizations, signing pledges, supporting Indigenous-owned businesses, and joining grassroots movements. We suggest some in this post.

More information

Marroquin Norby, Patricia and Sylvia Yount, “This is Lenapehoking,” May 12, 2021, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Acknowledgement of Country“, January 28, 2021, Common Ground

Download the “Honor Native Land” digital pack sponsored by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture for free here.

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